MusicMusic Review

“Random Access Memories” by Daft Punk Album Review

I was the first guy playing Daft Punk to the rock kids. I played it at CBGB’s. Everybody thought I was crazy. We all know. I was there. 

Those lines, from LCD Soundsystem’s now legendary first single, “Losing My Edge“, were an expression of James Murphy’s remembrance of old things, repackaged as something entirely new. “Edge” served as both a mission statement for the emerging artist and a commentary on the state of the NY music scene circa 2002, when Williamsburg had been invaded by a new subculture of over-priveleged twenty-somethings, fueled by mommy and daddy’s money and a self-aware need to share their love of an age they never knew. These thrift shop garbed individuals were (and still are) called “hipsters”, and while living in the wake of a tragedy never before seen by the United States of America, they clung to an insular, dance centered musical scene that emphasized “fun” over all else.

“Borrowed nostalgia” was what seemingly every member of this blooming set used to outwardly express themselves, while the rest of the world was banging out to Nelly and sitting down to the first season of American Idol at night. It was a “record store” culture that didn’t require its devotees to ever visit the racks of dusty, vinyl filled bins, as the still infant Internet served as a means for anybody who wanted to become an “instant expert” in any musical period to do so in an incredibly short amount of time. Murphy was frightened, as “experience” no longer seemed to matter as long as you could feign vast amounts of knowledge in order to earn “cred”.

Flash forward eleven years  —  now Daft Punk, the aforementioned point of reference Murphy used to illustrate the integration of dance music with traditional “rock” fans, have created their own work of nostalgia fueled club bangers. Where previous albums like HomeworkDiscovery and Human After All were rooted in the duo’s self-established “robot rock”, Random Access Memories effaces those records’ EDM sonics and replaces them with a live remembrance of styles past.

Laying the pastiche on thick and featuring guest spots from disco God Giorgio Moroder and 70s pop music penman Paul WilliamsRAM is rife with the same sentimentality for a time that both of the group’s human founders (Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo) were far too young to live through and remember. But through a cultivation of musical appreciation and an erudition of the recording styles of the disco heyday (not to mention gathering a plethora of insanely talented studio musicians from the time, including guitarist/producer Nile Rodgers), Bangalter and Homem-Christo have created the ultimate “hipster” record, one upping the nostalgic curation Murphy once feared and then utterly embraced. In short, Random Access Memories feels like the culmination of a musical scene the robots were never truly a part of (both hail from the land of French house music) that aids in keeping Daft Punk’s otherworldly air completely intact.

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For a record written by two men dressed up in glittery robot suits, there’s a serious anti-technology bent to RAM. From the opening crash of “Give Life Back to Music”, the album’s ambitions are abundantly clear. Daft Punk have recruited some of the most gifted players on the planet (whose resumes include work on classics by the likes of Michael Jackson, Madonna, and David Bowie) to help hand craft the bouncy beats and melodies Bangalter and Hemem-Christo have dreamed up. Reportedly recorded onto analog tape instead of programmed via machines like their other albums, the sessions were held in bonafide music palaces such as New York’s Electric Lady (which was originally co-founded by Jimi Hendrix in 1968) and L.A.’s Capitol Studios. This gives each track a rarified “human” feel and even a spark of spontaneity on some of the longer cuts (particularly the Paul Williams collaboration “Touch”). Retro-futurism is still the name of the game, but where “One More Time” felt more like a pre-cursor to “mash-up” culture, the tracks on RAM have a soul that feels genuinely unearthed instead of invented.

If the record stumbles at all, its early on with “The Game of Love”. That isn’t to say the jazzy, Sade-by-way-of-Autotune lounge cut is necessarily “bad”, but it simply doesn’t lead to anything particularly interesting. While many of the tracks eventually evolve, twisting and turning unpredictably at times, “The Game of Love” opts to be the lovelorn ballad of a robot’s broken heart. But where songs like “Digital Love” found a way to feel warmly alien, “The Game of Love” seems content to drift for over five minutes without any kind of tension or release, coldly leaving the listener outside of its mechanical heart.

In the beginning, I wanted to do an album with the sound of the 50s, the sound of the 60s, of the 70s…and then have a sound of the future.
And I said: “Wait a second…I know the synthesizer, why don’t I use the synthesizer which is the sound of the future.” And I didn’t have any idea what to do, but I knew I needed a click. So we put a click on the 24-track, which was then synched to the Moog modular. I knew that it could be a sound of the future, but I didn’t realise how much impact it would be.

My name is Giovanni Giorgio, but everybody calls me…Giorgio.

“Girorgio By Moroder” is certainly the track that acts as RAM’s decoder ring, as it begins with the famous electro pioneer explaining his meager beginnings as a fifteen-year-old dreamer in small town Germany before ripping into a nearly seven minute synth line that sky rockets the listener into the future. A few months ago, when talking about their upcoming album with a variety of media outlets, Daft Punk consistently said that they “needed to look back to move forward”, and the meaning behind that quote doesn’t become 100% clear until this very moment. The two robots are looking to their human predecessors for inspiration, tossing out everything they knew and relearning from basic musical history lessons. “Giorgio By Moroder” contains the lecture that acts as the lynchpin to the album, as it becomes clear that RAM isn’t just an exploration of the history of electronic music, but a full-blown celebration of it as well.

But the past isn’t all Daft Punk are interested in, as they collect a group of their present-day peers for six of RAM’s thirteen tracks. In many ways, it feels as if they’re attempting to build a bridge between musical generations, as the Neptunes’ Pharrell Williams appears twice with Nile Rodgers, contributing vocals to what are easily the most party ready anthems in “Lose Yourself to Dance” and initial single “Get Lucky” (which is stretched to a brilliantly breezy six minutes on the album). Avant garde piano composer Chilly Gonzales lays down a sobering piano line on “Within”, while The Strokes’ Julian Casablancas lends his own heavily processed vocals to the soft rock turned dance floor freakout “Instant Crush”. Animal Collective’s Panda Bear (a/k/a Noah Lennox) offers up his honey-dipped Brian Wilson harmonizing to “Doin’ It Right”, and longtime Daft Punk collaborator DJ Falcon helps close the record with the thoroughly bombastic “Contact” (which comes complete with what sounds like an astronaut’s description of a UFO). It’s a veritable “murderer’s row” of modern weirdo geniuses to help meet the wave of nostalgia head on.

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Any reviewer would be remiss in not mentioning the album’s collaboration with Paul Williams, the diminutive songsmith best known for earning himself an Academy Award nomination for co-writing the score to 1979’s The Muppet Movie and its most memorable song, Kermit the Frog’s “Rainbow Connection“. But Jim Henson’s fuzzy creations aren’t the best jumping off point for discussing just why Williams’ inclusion might be RAM’s finest stroke of genius.

In 1974, Williams lent Brian De Palma his musical mind and helped created the soundtrack to the whacked out New Jersey auteur’s Phantom of the Paradise. A genre and generation spanning acid trip of a film, Phantom’s OST covered everything from ’60s greaser rock (the film’s memorable opener “Goodbye Eddie Goodbye“), Brian Wilson beach bop (the explosive “Upholstery“) and even full-on theatrical glam rock (the Alice Cooper tinged “Somebody Super Like You/Life at Last“). With that record, Williams showed that he was interested in more than just writing a simple soundtrack, but wanted to traverse the many ways popular music changes over time, and his contribution to RAM (the schmaltz ballad epic, “Touch”) does that as well.

Starting with spacey samples and ominous, robotic vocals, the song then becomes a poignant piano piece, with Williams tenderly longing for the titular feeling he now struggles to find (in pre-album talks, the songwriter noted his sobriety as being one of the keys that allowed him to write such a vulnerable piece for the record). But the intimate setting soon gives way to yet another massive breakdown, followed by a choir of “Hey Jude” proportions singing about love being the answer. Its the transcendent moment that elevates RAM from being a simple pop record, and turns into a singular work of elegant exploration.

In 2013, the word “hipster” is no longer an obscure descriptor merely in the vernacular of the socially conscious. The condescending “instant expert” that Murphy so deftly imagined and predicted on “Losing My Edge” is now a ubiquitous caricature that pervades not only popular culture, but whose presence prevents certain individuals from even considering a certain artist or their work (see also: certain uniformed, venomous responses to Vampire Weekend’s equally excellent Modern Vampires of the City). There are already those who are dismissing RAM based on the sunny, opening licks of Nile Rodgers’ guitar alone, deeming the record as some kind of disingenuous attempt to “resurrect disco”. But what those dismissive dilettantes are missing out on is the utter sincerity that pervades every note Daft Punk and their expert expert collaborators have written and recorded together here. Random Access Memories isn’t some work of self-reflective irony, but rather an honest to God celebration of both musical history and unshakable modernity.

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The Author

Jacob Knight

Jacob Knight

Jacob Knight is a screenwriter, novelist and journalist from Slotter, Mass. He is most times fueled by scotch, horror films and the Criterion Collection. He currently resides in Philadelphia, PA with his wife and cantankerous Westie pup.